Sunday Anchor

No end to battle over land

When the National Democratic Alliance government amended the land acquisition Act through an ordinance last week, it promised to set farmers and industry on an amiable path to mutual benefits and development.

Land acquisition under the 1894 Act had been marked by violent protests, even police firings at farmers. The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Act, 2013, is the first law on acquiring land post-Independence. Does this ordinance amending the law before it was even fully implemented make the acquisition of land more transparent and fair?

Non-transparent resource allocation

The LARR Act was passed unanimously by all political parties last September. Commenting on the changes back then, Vinayak Chatterjee, Chairman, Confederation of Indian Industry’s National Task Force on Infrastructure, said: “The term ‘public purpose’ has now been clearly defined. The misuse of this clause under ‘eminent domain’ was the bane of the earlier legislation. It led to forcible, heartless acquisition programmes as well as ‘lazy acquisitions where acquired land was hugely in excess of needs or just left unutilised.’”

After the ordinance was passed last week, Mr. Chatterjee maintained, “All I can say is I am positive about the ordinance as it includes public-private partnership for social infrastructure in the exempt category.”

Among the main changes, the ordinance exempts special categories of projects from the requirements of social impact assessment (SIA) and obtaining consent of affected families mandated by the LARR Act. It dilutes the time limit of five years put on projects, after which if land remained utilised, it would go back to the landowner. Instead, the period of five years has been substituted by unspecified period. Another dilution is of the “retrospective clause” to exclude time spent under litigation in cases where a stay order has been passed.

CAG Report revelations A month before the ordinance was cleared, a Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) report on special economic zones (SEZs) was tabled in Parliament. It found that of the 45,635 hectares of land notified for the development of SEZs, no operations had taken place in 38 per cent of the notified land even after several years of acquisition. It criticised developers, including Reliance, DLF and Essar, for acquiring land but using only “a fraction of it.”

“Many tracts of lands were acquired invoking the ‘public purpose’ clause,” it noted. For instance, the CAG found that the Mukesh Ambani-promoted SEZ in Navi Mumbai had got over 1,250 hectares of land at Dronagiri in Maharashtra in 2006 for a multi-product SEZ. But no industrial unit had been built on the land till now. The CAG found that several industrial houses had raised loans of Rs. 6,309.53 crore mortgaging leasehold government land.

The SEZs, along with private health and educational institutions, are in the broad category of public-private social infrastructure projects now exempted from the SIA’s scrutiny and consent clause under the ordinance. “By giving up the consent clause, you are opening the door for forcible land acquisition which is not acceptable and should not happen under any circumstances. By giving up SIA, you are opening the door for diversion of land,” said Jairam Ramesh, under whose tenure as Union Rural Development Minister the LARR Act was passed in 2013.

While industry bodies such as the CII have welcomed the ordinance, describing it as a sign of the government’s “serious commitment to economic reforms,” farmers’ unions have announced protests when Parliament meets for the Budget Session. “Hundreds of farmers were martyred protesting unfair acquisition. The Modi government has done this to hand over land to acquire land and hand it over to builders and industry,” said B.S. Rajwal, president, Bharat Kisan Union.

Environmentalists, too, have questioned the dilutions in favour of developers. “The government wants to empower companies to acquire land and do nothing with it. The ordinance says five years, or a specified time period whichever is later, but it does not say who will specify this time period, can it be changed or extended,” pointed out Shankar Gopalakrishnan of Campaign for Survival and Dignity.

Intensifying conflicts A study released by a U.S.-based think-tank, Rights and Resources Initiative and Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development, studied Supreme Court and High Court judgments from the past 10 years, and newspaper reports on land disputes and found that land conflicts affect one-fourth of India’s 610 districts. In instances such as the ongoing struggle over POSCO land in Odisha, the Bengaluru-based Alternative Law Forum found that between 2006 and 2012, 230 cases were filed against over 2,000 villagers resisting POSCO.

Several of the conflicts have resulted from takeover of agricultural and irrigated land. But the ordinance dilutes the provision in the 2013 to acquire multi-crop, irrigated land only as a last resort but exempting special categories.

“Even if the company offers Rs. 50 lakh, we will not give up agricultural land,” said Deepak Das (35), who leads the North Karanpura Bachao Samiti in Hazaribagh in Jharkhand and is an accused in four cases related to land acquisition protests. The samiti comprises over 10,000 families at 23 villages in Hazaribagh opposing a NTPC project to mine coal here since 2005.

The land ordinance does little to check the real bottlenecks posed by cronyism, lack of accountability or arbitrariness in the decision-making processes. A “reform” such as this may fail to check social conflict with little improvement in vital infrastructure.


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Printable version | May 18, 2022 6:52:48 am | https://www.thehindu.com/sunday-anchor/sunday-anchor-battling-over-land/article6751896.ece